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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Ruth Rogan Benerito

Ruth Rogan Benerito --Chemist

Radically changed the cotton industry through her scientific invention of wrinkle-free, wash-and-wear fabrics.

The next time you put on that comfortable wash-and-wear shirt, dress, or pair of jeans, think of scientist Ruth Rogan Benerito and how she used the power of chemistry to make fabrics for such clothing possible. Her invention in 1953 of the "easy-care cotton" process resulted in the wrinkle-resistant "permanent press" and "wash-and-wear" clothes we know today.

Ruth, who earned her Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago, was born in 1916 in New Orleans, LA. Her father (a civil engineer) and her mother (a college-educated artist and active feminist) both encouraged Ruth in her dream of pursuing science, with her father often telling her: "An education is something that can never be taken from you."

Why She's Important: Working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratories in New Orleans in the early 1950's, Ruth discovered a way to chemically treat cotton fibers so that their long chainlike cellulose molecules joined firmly together. Her method--known as the "easy-care cotton process" (or sometimes called "cross linking") --made cotton fabrics highly resistant to wrinkling, and gave way to "wash-and-wear" clothing, which is believed by many to have saved the cotton industry because of the heightened convenience it gave consumers at a time when the industry was declining. Later, her development led to stain- and flame-resistant fabrics.

Other Achievements: In addition to her easy-care cotton process invention, Ruth garnered more than 50 other patents in the textile, wood, and paper industries using cellulose chemistry during her 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before retiring from the USDA. She is the recipient of numerous honors for her achievements, including being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008, and being recognized by Lyndon B. Johnson during his presidency.

Education: After completing high school at age 14, Ruth entered Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University at age 15 as a chemistry student, graduating during the Great Depression. As jobs in her field where difficult to obtain during this period she taught at local schools near New Orleans. She earned her Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry shortly after World War II.

In Her Own Words: Asked by Forbes magazine in 2001 what she thought the next great innovations on the horizons would be, she included in her predictions: "Innovative procedures for the use of embryonic stem cells that will be used to cure debilitating diseases or reconstruct nerve cells after spinal cord injuries...and innovative mass-transit systems that will lower energy demand and improve the environment."

Still living in New Orleans (although she lost her house -- the same one she lived in for 56 years -- during Hurricane Katrina), Ruth is now age 92.